Popular Blind Pass Beach Park in Sanibel deemed dangerously eroded and closed indefinitely

Amy Bennett Williams
Fort Myers News-Press

Blind Pass Beach Park on Sanibel is closed, after sudden erosion over the past month made it unsafe, Sanibel officials decided.

If or when the shoreline park, which is popular with anglers and beachgoers, will reopen is unclear, said the city’s director of natural resources, Holly Milbrandt. Barrier islands are ever-changing, she says, and Blind Pass between Sanibel and Captiva is a case in point.

The tidal strait that separates the islands while connecting the Gulf of Mexico with Pine Island Sound is narrowing as it fills with sand. The more constricted waterway causes faster flow, the way a clogged artery raises blood pressure.

On the nearby Gulf-side beach, what was once a gentle slope to the water is now a steep 5- to 6-foot drop-off.

Previously:Captiva public beach access closing considered, seeking public input

In case you missed it:Sanibel begins emergency work to keep vital roadway from washing into the Gulf

Sometimes, hurricanes and sea level rise can cause dramatic washouts, but in this case, climate change isn’t responsible, nor is early June’s Tropical Storm Alex.

Changes, beach renourishment helped bring about erosion problems

Instead, blame the islands’ perpetual changes and Captiva’s recent beach nourishment project, which added more than 806,000 cubic yards to a 4 ½ mile stretch between last September and November. When such projects introduce large quantities of sand into an area, it doesn’t all stay put, Milbrandt says, but “where it all will be deposited is a bit of a mystery.”

Dan Munt, director of operations for the Captiva Erosion Prevention District calls it “an expected result of our beach nourishment … The current flows from north to south and it just so happens that our beach is full of sand now, and when that happens, any excess sand is going to come out of our beach system.  Because of that, officials are holding off on emergency actions, “to allow our beach nourishment project to settle, if you will,” Munt says. “They don’t want to go and dredge the pass and just have it refill up with sand.”

Yes, Milbrandt says, this is what barrier islands do, but “we also have a lot of manmade changes that were introduced into this particular area,” and a changing shoreline is nothing new. In 2020, erosion threatened not just the beach, but  several hundred feet of Sanibel-Captiva Road just south of Blind Pass.

“We got to the point where we had lost all of the beach in that area (and) there was significant concern about the integrity of the road – our evacuation route for north Sanibel and all of Captiva,” Milbrandt said. To the rescue: $1.4 million from Lee County’s Tourism Development Council to shore things up. “We essentially put in a wall,” she said, “And in terms of its road protection function, it’s holding great.”

As population increases, interventions will be needed

These sorts of interventions will always be needed as long as people want to live on barrier islands. Before the Captiva jetty was built 50 years ago, “The area looked completely different and the location of Blind Pass was much further south,” Milbrandt said.

Now, the pass area is managed cooperatively by the Blind Pass Inlet Management plan, an agreement between the City of Sanibel, the Captiva Erosion Protection District and Lee County that governs periodic maintenance dredging for “for benefits related to coastal and environmental purposes,” county spokesman Tim Engstrom wrote in an email – and not for navigation.

The next round of maintenance dredging is expected next year, though the exact date depends on the speed of permitting and contract bidding, Munt and Milbrandt say.

When it happens, the nonprofit Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s marine lab will be keeping an eye on the nearby environment, said CEO James Evans. “Having water moving back and forth between bay and Gulf results in better water quality,” he said. “The more clean Gulf water we have exchanging the better water quality … We will be monitoring so we don’t see a decline.”

The last dredging was in June 2017, when 89,700 cubic yards of pass bottom was removed for $1.3 million, Engstrom said.

Since the recent erosion, the county’s natural resources department is working with the Army Corps of Engineers and Florida Department of Environmental Protection to modify the permits to adjust where the sand can be placed to provide the best benefit to the eroded shorelines, he said. “A survey is planned for July to measure the amount of sand in the pass as well as the adjacent beach conditions. The survey will help in estimating the cost."

Where will sand finally end up?

Ultimately, the excess sand will end up on Sanibel beaches, Munt says, so “it’s going to be a good thing, although it’s a bit of an inconvenience right now.”

The new cliffs haven’t stopped  the crowds. “People seem to be enjoying themselves and they’re really making the best of the sand accumulation,” Munt said, “You can often see people walking along the sandbar that formed and there’s a lot of fishing going on out there.” When he visited the other day, he says, he saw about 10 fish landed in half an hour.

Never mind that they’re technically not supposed to be on the beach; as long as they stay out of the parking lot, they won’t get hassled.

“We’ve gone to a more substantial barricade, because in the past, we had people just move the barricades and go park,” Milbrandt said. This time, she says, the warning is posted and “We’d be able to initiate parking fines," she said. "Certainly if you were just walking the beach from the south and coming up towards the bridge … we hope people will recognize there’s a safety issue there, though we’re not out there ready to handcuff people and bring them in.”

Blind Pass Beach Park alternatives

The closest beach parks to the Blind Pass Beach Park are Turners Beach Park (approximately 1,000 feet to the north) and Bowman’s Beach Park (approximately 2.4 miles to the south). View all beach park locations on Sanibel here:  https://www.mysanibel.com/Departments/Public-Works-Department/Parks-Public-Beaches/Public-Beach-Park-Information